For over 150 years, Wakehurst's woodlands evolved by collecting. Ornamental plantings and exotic tree collections in amongst native woodland, generally English oak. There was a rich and mature collection of trees and shrubs, but completely random.
During 1960s and 1970s trees and shrubs were grouped according to the areas of the world in which they grew – a phytogeographic system. In the great storm of October 1987, Wakehurst lost about 15,000 trees.
While it was a great loss we have since created a series of tree collections which are more scientifically important, more attractive to visitors and more relevant to Kew's emphasis on conservation and education.
This is a fabulous journey through North America – with no need for your passport.
This wood is a perfect example of phytogeographic planting. Phyto – means plant and geographical means that the trees are planted according to where they grow naturally. North America is a huge continent so habitats vary significantly and our planting reflects this. The trees are set out by regions so as you walk from Westwood Lake toward the Millennium Seed Bank, you pass first through trees from the east coast of the USA and Canada, then on through trees from California to the Pacific west coast and Rocky Mountains.
Each region has a distinct flora, so the east coast or Appalachian region is dominated by deciduous trees. Here you can experience the colours of 'fall', with trees such as sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) and hickory (Carya tomentosa) bringing this area alive with colour in October. These trees are the subject of many Native American stories, and they are essential for the survival of many native animals. This is celebrated in the Talking Totems, a natural play space where children can play and learn.
Further into the wood the vegetation changes to coniferous woodland and the plants are those of the Californian region, which enjoys a Mediterranean climate.
If you continue you will reach the Pacific coastal conifer forest of the Vancouver region, dominated by stately redwoods, hemlocks and Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii).
This is a relaxing area to walk especially with sunlight filtering through the branches.
It is named after Wakehurst's former head gardener Alfred Coates and was first opened to the public in 1977.
The wood was one of the areas worst affected by the great storm of 1987, with lots of fine specimens uprooted. However, after the huge clear up a whole swathe of new trees originating from the southern hemisphere were planted, following Wakehurst’s geographic planting system. A shelter belt of trees was also planted around the edge of Coates Wood to protect the more delicate trees if really high winds should strike again. This shield comprises of oak, pine and yew.
If you enter from Bethlehem Wood you will arrive in the woodlands of Australia and New Zealand. You will spot Eucalyptus, a grove of Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobillis) and southern beech (Nothofagus). The southern beech (Nothofagus) is a distant cousin of our native beech (Fagus sylvatica), but is exclusive to the southern hemisphere. At Wakehurst we have the National Collection of Nothofagus.
The wood is horseshoe shaped and as you move through you will pass into the trees of South America including Fizroya cupressoides, a conifer named for Captain Fitzroy, commander of the HMS Beagle on Charles Darwin’s first voyage around South America. Known as Alerce, it is South America’s largest tree. It is an endangered species and it is now illegal to trade in its wood. A shipment impounded by HMS Customs and Excise was donated to Kew to build the Field Study Centre in Westwood Valley, which is used for school visits.
Plants to look out for include Eucryphia, Drimys and Lomatia. All of these shrubs have pretty flowers, making Coates Wood a fabulous place to walk. And there are some fabulous views across Bloomers Valley and the summer colours of the wildflower meadow below.
This narrow valley lies between Horsebridge Wood and Bethlehem Wood.
It is deliberately not planted with trees so visitors can experience beautiful open views, from high up in Coates Wood, and looking north northeast from Horsebridge Wood.
During WWII the area was ploughed for vegetable production. Over the last 10 years it has become a carefully managed wildflower meadow. The wildflowers already present have been mixed with other native wildflower species from Kent and Sussex. These have been raised in the Wakehurst nurseries before being planted out.
The meadow also contains some rare species of wild flower such dyers greenweed (Genista tinctoria) and saw-wort (Serratula tinctoria).
The Rock Walk leads visitors along the bottom of a series of low cliffs of Ardingly Sandstone that trace the side of Bloomer’s Valley.
The geology of this part of the High Weald dates back 140 million years to the Early Cretaceous period, when rivers deposited beds of sand and clay. The area was later covered by the Tethys Sea, which laid down more sand and clay, topped by a layer of chalk limestone.
After many phases of sea retreats and land movements, southeast England rose up to form a huge dome that stretched from the North Downs to France. These land movements were related to the development of the Alps. Over time, weathering cut away the chalk to leave behind the inland sandstone cliffs we see today. Mostly made of Ardingly Sandstone, in places they reach 15 metres high.
This is a stunning wood to walk through and is close to the Millennium Seed Bank. It is home to the National Collection of birches (Betula) which are native to the northern hemisphere, where they colonise clearings and newly opened habitats as well as regions where larger trees can’t survive, such as the arctic tundra.
There are some tundra species that are extremely difficult to cultivate at Wakehurst as warm winters and late frosts can kill the young foliage. However, a wide range of the birch species grow really well here and this collection is one of Britain’s finest. These trees are beautiful at any time of the year – their coloured bark glows in the winter sunlight, while their delicate leaves provide dappled shade through the summer months. Towards autumn many of the American species turn a rich yellow creating a magical canopy under which to walk.
You can see the wide variety of species at close hand throughout the year by following the birch trail, mowed into the grass through the collection. The colour of the bark can vary dramatically with each species, so botanists use the differences in the flowers and leaves to distinguish between variants. The trees are set out geographically, so each section of Bethlehem Wood has birches from a different part of the northern hemisphere.
The Westwood Valley, a steep ravine running from the Water Gardens to Westwood Lake, is home to Wakehurst's collection of Asian plants.
Westwood Valley represents the landscape of the eastern Himalayas below the tree-line, with semi-evergreen forests of rhododendrons, laurels, maples, alders, oaks, birches, rowan and conifers.
Plants from this region of the world have long fascinated gardeners, because the choicest species of many genera grow there. They are often those with the showiest flowers, most vibrant autumn colours or most interesting bark.
Westwood Valley’s cool and moist conditions enable many Asian species to thrive in the Sussex Weald.
Wakehurst’s Pinetum lies to the northeast of the Himalayan Glade. The name ‘pinetum’ is given to a collection of conifers.
Wakehurst’s Pinetum was originally developed by Gerald Loder, who first planted conifers on the southern side of the estate, then extended his collection to the northeast of the Himalayan Glade in the 1920s, where it evolved under the care and influence of Kew.
Sadly about 80% of the mature trees in the Pinetum perished in the great storm of 1987. Since then we have planted in a geographic system, with trees from the same regions grouped together.
Conifers dominate the world as a tree species. Huge areas of the northern hemisphere in Asia and North America are home to conifers, with several species only found in the southern hemisphere.
While walking through the Pinetum you will see the Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobillis) and Podocarpus from Australia, and Taiwania and Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria) from Taiwan and Korea.
One large specimen of Cryptomeria japonica has a carving of sika deer stag’s head set in its trunk. This traditional style of carving called Tachigibori has been practised in Japan for centuries. The trunk of a living tree is carved to a design, but the bark is allowed to slowly enclose the carving to show the passage of time. This carving was expertly completed by artist Masa Suzuki in 2013 as part of a Japanese-British collaboration, into a tree that damaged by the 1987 storm.
As you walk through the Pinetum you may come across an underground communication station. During WWII, Wakehurst was home to the 1st Canadian Corps. This underground station allowed them to communicate with resistance forces in France.